Blood, Sweat and Beer

When someone mentions family, what comes to mind?  That may seem to be a dumb question to some, but the truth is family can have several different meanings.  If you stop to think about it, it is amazing what one can consider a family.  Don’t worry.  This is not a political piece dealing with any current controversies or issues surrounding the definition of family. It is a straight up homage to one of my families.  Yes, I said one of my families.

Most of us have more than one family.  For most, there is a family of origin.  You know, mom, dad and siblings.  Then there is an extended family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Later we have our own family.  In fact, some of us may have our own family several times, family number 1, family number 2, etc. Still others join groups that become family to us.  Saturday, May 26, 2012, I visited one of those other  families, my rugby family.

It is a little unusual for someone born in the Midwest and raised in the Southwest to have a rugby family.  I just happen to be one of those lucky few.  On Saturday, my old club was hosting a rugby tournament to raise funds in memory of one our mates who died of a particularly nasty cancer a few years ago.  I took the opportunity to drop by and see a few old friends and watch a little summer rugby.

As luck would have it, one of the young guys playing for a visiting team was the son of someone against whom I’d played back in the day.  That chance meeting sent me on a bit of a nostalgic day dream back to sweatier times.

Rugby found me in 1974.  That may seem like the dark ages to some, but it was not that long ago for me.  I say rugby found me, because that is what happened.  Like most people in Texas, I had never heard of rugby.  Then a friend asked me if I’d like to join the North Texas State University Rugby Club*.  (Now the Denton Rugby Football Club**)

I had the same reaction most of you would have.  I said, “What the heck is rugby?” He said it was a cross between football and soccer.  He might also have mentioned something about free beer after the matches, but my memory is not what it once was.  I am not certain if that is due to all the shots to the head I took or that beer I think my friend mentioned.

To say I’d found a home would be an understatement. For the next 21 years rugby was a big part of my life.  From August until May each year, I trained, traveled, laughed, played and drank a beer or two with my teammates. We bled together, sweated together and hoisted a pint together for all of those years.  Some of the faces changed each year, but the camaraderie didn’t.  Win, lose or draw, we had a great time.

Ruggers like to say rugby is a ruffian’s sport played by gentlemen.  We usually say that when contrasting ourselves with soccer, which is known as a gentleman’s sport played by ruffians.  I cannot vouch for the disparaging remarks about soccer. I can attest to the validity of the claim about rugby, especially if you have a rather loose definition of a gentleman.

Rugby seems to be unique in the amateur sports world.  Many sports build a team spirit or a sense of commonality among the participants.  Rugby on the other hand seems to build a relationship that is more family than team spirit.  For example, a rugby player from anywhere can walk into a rugby clubhouse or walk onto the practice pitch and feel almost immediately at home.

Players from some countries rely on the rugby sense of belonging and acceptance to travel the world.  They travel to an area with rugby and find a temporary home.  They find a team with which they can play.  They find friends who will give them a place to stay and help them find work if they need it.

The sociologist in me wonders why this is the case.  Why does a rugby club feel more like a family than a club or team?  Why can an American rugby player travel to Wales and be accepted like a long lost relative?  Why can a New Zealander travel to Denton, Texas and fit in like he was raised there?

Part of the phenomenon is the culture.  Rugby seems to have started as a club that happened to play a sport.  While playing rugby in England and Wales one time, the Denton RFC visited clubs that had been in existence since the mid-19th century.  They were rugby clubs first, and rugby teams second, at least that is the way it seemed to this writer.

The other part of the equation is the game itself.  Rugby is, as the saying implies, a rough sport.  In some ways it is possibly one of the roughest sports one can play.  Two teams of fifteen players meet on the pitch (field to non-ruggers) and do battle for eighty minutes. Unlike American football, rugby is not a game where players move in and out after every play or series of plays.  Most players in a rugby match play the entire game.  Substitutions can be made, but they are limited.  It was not unusual to see a team playing shorthanded toward the end of an especially grueling match.

Rugby forwards, the equivalent of the offensive and defensive line in football are in every play and spend much of the match locked in a scrum.  A scrum involves direct, shoulder to shoulder contact with the opposing team’s forwards.  The scrum is something like the offensive and defensive lines in football when the ball is snapped.  The point of it is to gain control of the ball, or keep control of the ball.  In other ways, it is akin to a professional wrestling tag team match with sixteen wrestlers in the ring at the same time.

Rugby backs are not locked in close quarter combat for as much of the game. Like football running or defensive backs, they are waiting for the opportunity to carry the ball or tackle the opposing back.  Still, there are many instances in a match in which a 150 pound back will find himself sandwiched in the middle of a ruck being pushed, pummeled and walked on by 200 plus pound forward.

It should be clear where the blood and sweat in the title originate.  Eighty minutes of rugby guarantee a lot of sweat and more than a little blood at times.  As suggested earlier, it is a full contact sport, without helmets or pads. It is also intensely competitive.  One does not play rugby to lose, and a game that involves this much energy, effort and pain can lead to hard feelings and lost tempers.  Fights, cheap shots and other forms of aggression are not unknown in rugby.

The grand thing about rugby is that the hard feelings normally do not leave the field. If they do leave the field, they do not last long.  The traditions of rugby require the home team to host a party for the visiting team after the match.  Whether that was genius, serendipity or just a way to sell beer is unknown, at least to this writer.  However, the tradition lives on and makes rugby different from other sports, at least at the amateur level.

Within an hour of the final whistle, the opposing clubs are in the host team’s clubhouse or favorite pub.  They are hoisting a brew, congratulating each other on good plays and regaling each other with tales of matches won and lost in the past.  They are remembering former teammates who moved on or retired.  Old friendships are rekindled and new rivalries are born.  At the end of the evening, the teams part looking forward to the next time they square off on the pitch, and the next after-match party at which they can swap lies and remember past glory.

* A new rugby club was formed several years ago at the University of North Texas.  It competes in the collegiate division of the Texas Rugby Union

**Check out their Facebook page

© S. E. Jackson – 2015

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